If you've ever spent time on a tobacco farm then you are no stranger to hard work. The kind of work that my family said builds character. At any rate, it made for some memories that will last a lifetime.
A time-honored tradition
Tobacco has many positive uses and benefits. Unless you smoke it, of course. I'm sure many people don't realize it because nowadays, tobacco has a bad reputation. That wasn't always the case, the roads of my town were paved with money made from tobacco farming. Even our agriculture and FFA (Future Farmers of America), and horticulture students at my high school even harvested tobacco each year. It was because of tobacco farming that our schools let out in the summer months. That was when extra hands were needed to work the fields.
My town had a parade and a yearly festival to celebrate tobacco farming. We still have those events; we just call them by a different name. I know without the proceeds from tobacco, our winters would have been a lot more challenging. It helped bills get paid, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, oil in the furnace, and gifts under the tree.
For generations, my family harvested tobacco. However, it wasn't a single-family effort. What I mean is; my Papaw's brothers each raised tobacco and we would help each other until everyone's job was done. Some of the equipment was owned and shared mutually too.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
People often refer to it as hard, back-breaking work and it sure was. I don't remember it being as hard as putting up hay though. Maybe, it is because I was the youngest in my family at the time, and so my tasks weren't as intense. At any rate, any time that you are out in a field on the hottest of days is not my idea of a good time. It is, however, the last days that all of my family were together at once doing anything as a group. For that reason, I do miss those days, as hot and unbearable as it was.
Burley baccer, baccer fields, baccer sticks, baccer barn, baccer gum, baccer stalks, baccer spears, baccer leaves, baccer setter, baccer topper, baccer rows, baccer, baccer, baccer...
It seemed like it started in late spring/early summer when the seedlings were planted in the seedbed in our garden. When the fields were plowed and the seedlings were ready, it was time to set them. This consisted of pulling the seedlings and taking them to the fields. Two people, usually my brother and my aunt, would ride the setter hitched to the back of the tractor. They each had a tray full of seedlings in front of them and they would be pulled up and down the rows while they took turns placing seedlings in the ground so far apart.
My job was to walk behind the setter and make sure the plants were straight and maybe pack the dirt where needed and help them replace the seedling stacks on their trays. We got to enjoy some fresh-squeezed lemonade or sweet tea on our breaks from a cooler Granny had packed for us. That was the best part of the whole ordeal, for me anyway.
Then the rains came
After every big rain, until the plants were big and strong enough, we would have to do what is called re-setting. Dad would take my brother and me to check the fields. Heavy rains would beat the plants down. We would roll up our pant legs, take off our shoes, and go up and down the rows and straighten the plants by hand.
No matter how careful we tried to be, it was a messy job. 'Careful' usually only lasted the first five minutes before our efforts were considered futile. You just can't say you've lived unless you know the feeling of cow manure and mud squishing between your toes first hand. We'd come back home barefoot with shoes in hand and head for the hose. Mom wouldn't allow us into the house until we were hosed off with the water hose. Even then, she would lay newspaper down right inside the doorway for us to step on until we could discard muddy clothes and get into a robe or towel. She had it down to a science.
The next time I would be called upon was when it came time to cut and spear the plants. Of course, I wasn't allowed to use the hatchet or the spear. I had the distinguished task of following the spearer (my brother) and handing him baccer sticks as needed. Baccer sticks were just that, sticks, about 1"x 2" wide and roughly 4' long. From what I was told, ours were hand-made by my Papaw. We used the same sticks year after year. Aside from tobacco use, they were also good for sword fighting, and also made a decent walking stick when needed.
I'd get an armload of these, as many as my little arms could hold, and follow my brother up and down the rows of baccer that the one with the hatchet had cut down. I'd hand him a stick and he'd hold it upright, place the spear on top, take a stalk of tobacco by each end, and drive it down the stick. Typically, 6-8 tobacco stalks could be speared on one stick. These were then fashioned in such a way that they looked like a field of teepees when we were done. Ok, who has the lemonade?
"When you gotta go, you gotta go"
God forbid if you need to go to the bathroom though. Stopping work to relieve one's self was frowned upon. Don't care, I would head to the house as needed. My great grandmother though...She was cut from a different cloth. She would fuss at me for leaving to do my business. She would tinkle where she stood. While standing, while continuing to spear tobacco at the same time. I told her I couldn't do that; it would just travel down my leg. She said (and I quote) in that gravely, high-pitched, old lady voice, "It's all how you point it". Honest to Pete, I kid you not. I replied, "That requires a special kind of magic that I have not yet mastered and nor do I wish to try". In which she responded with a "hummpphhhh" and a perturbed look on her face reminding me of yet another reason why I was her least favorite great-grandchild.
Hang it to cure
At some point, it would be time to gather all of the stalks to hang in the barn. We would pile on the wagon and head to the field. The ones in the field would hand the stalks to someone on the wagon and they would secure them on the wagon. My job was to walk up and down the rows gathering up any loose leaves I found on the ground. Once we had a wagon full, we would pile on and head to the barn. At this point, we would form a line from the wagon to inside the barn. I would stay on the wagon and pass the baccer sticks full of tobacco to the next person, and so on until they reached the person who would hang them from the rafters. There the baccer would hang while it cured.
Makin the grade
Grading the tobacco was the part I enjoyed the most about the whole process. It's where we would remove the leaves from the stakes and separate them accordingly to be hauled off to the tobacco warehouse to be sold. We would grade the tobacco every night until it was all done. Sometimes it would take about a week and that's not including helping our extended family with their grading if needed.
One of the men would pull the stakes down and stack them into piles. We would then form a couple of lines. Each of us would pull off the leaves we were assigned to, like an assembly line. One doing the lower leaves, one doing the middle leaves, and one doing the tips. I would pull the tips. In the old days, we would tie them off when we had a hand full and place them on pallets. Eventually, we went to placing them in bale boxes and pressing them into bales (wrapped with twine) once full. We had 3 boxes for each type of leaves and the bales would be labeled.
My Mom, Dad, Aunt, Uncle, Papaw, Brother, and I would head to the barn after supper and work until late, sometimes well after midnight. I remember it would be so cold outside but not too bad in the barn. Maybe we had a little heater hooked up, I can't remember. We'd always have the radio on, I do know that. Those were the good old days, working together, the love and laughter through the night.
Our hands would be solid black and sticky with baccer gum. Which was really tar and resin, I guess. At some point, we would finally call it a night and head to my grandparent's house. We'd form two lines; some would head for the bathroom sink and some would wait to use the sink in the kitchen. Gran would hand us some gritty working man's soap to get the gum off of our hands. After a few more laughs, we would make our way to our house and wind down for bedtime. To be continued the next night and so on until it was done. It wears me out just thinking about it now, but I don't recall having any problems being tired at school the next day. Back then I had the energy to spare and then some.
When the grading was finished, it was loaded and hauled off to the warehouse to be sold. Once it sold, the money would be divided up accordingly. Those with the most difficult tasks and the most hours put in would receive the greater payday. As it should be.
It's that time of year
Those days are always on my mind this time of year. Good times were spent and memories were made with my family. Many of whom now reside in heaven. It was hard work, especially for them more so than me, but it brought us together. That is what I took away most. It's also probably why I don't tolerate complainers very well these days.
If you were there, you know. At any rate, thanks for reading, and I hope you have a blessed day.